Ben Lucas: Can British cities learn from US ‘networked localism’?

BenBy Ben Lucas
Chair of Public Services, the RSA.

Earlier this month, The Atlantic, one of the best public policy sites, published an interesting piece by Eric Liu about Seattle’s decision to introduce a $15 an hour minimum wage. This is an important development for a number of reasons. Firstly, it underscores the argument advanced by Bruce KatzBenjamin Barber and others, that American cities are stepping into the public policy vacuum left by a Federal Government that can’t make anything happen.  This is a proposition that is by no means limited to the US. Here in Britain, we are also living through an era of weak executive government. The next election looks unlikely to deliver a government with a large working majority and the combination of UKIP, Scottish independence and massive voter disengagement looks set to further undermine the centre’s authority.

It’s also noteworthy that the Seattle Minimum Wage Deal was the product of extensive local collaboration and consultation. The Seattle Task Force comprised business representatives as well as employee and citizen voices.  They had to negotiate a satisfactory outcome with each other and with the interests they represented.  This is a local deal, appropriate to the circumstances of the Seattle economy and labour market.  Again there is a read across to what some British Cities are doing, both in the scope of the issues they are focussing on and in the manner in which they are generating agreement.  Several British Cities have committed to the Living Wage and quite a few have hosted local Commissions, such as York’s Fairness Commission and Leeds’s Local Government Commission.

But the most interesting manifestation of the new found confidence of US cities is the way in which they are side-stepping Federal Government to work together on developing solutions to some of the major social and economic challenges they face.  This process has been dubbed  ‘networked localism’.  So, for example, the Seattle Minimum Wage Task Force took evidence and exchanged ideas with city and business leaders from Chicago, San Francisco, New York, Philadelphia and San Jose.  The Atlantic article points to collaboration between US cities on criminal justice reform, immigration, voting rights and a range of other important issues.

This raises obvious questions about the scope for networked cities in Britain.  One of the issues that the City Growth Commission is exploring is not only how more British cities can achieve their growth potential but also how they can collectively enhance GVA through more effective collaboration.  This works at a number of different levels.  Single Combined Authorities are themselves the product of closer working between Councils in Metro areas.  An even bigger economic prize could come from adjacent Metros working more effectively together to concentrate their economic clout. This is what the Northern Hub could achieve by fast tracking collaboration across the Pennines – a process that could make improving connectivity between these cities more important than speeding up links with London.

Economic networking between cities needn’t just be about geographical agglomeration.  Cities such as Sunderland and Derby have common advanced manufacturing strengths as well as weak city centre economies.  These and other similar cities are beginning to work together more closely through the Key Cities group to develop shared approaches to economic policy.  The Core Cities Group is doing likewise for the larger cities and the recent establishment by the LGA of a Cities Board is all about how urban areas can better co-ordinate their efforts. City Growth Commissioner, Greg Clark, makes a strong case for an approach that promotes a system of cities as part of a nation’s overall approach to inward investment.  His argument is that large investors will want a balanced risk portfolio across a range of cities in the same country and that it makes sense for cities to work together to present a complementary investment offer.

On public services and social policy, ‘networked localism’ can help Councils  develop new shared approaches to the challenges and opportunities of austerity, demand management and open data. The Co-operative Council Innovation Network brings together 20 Councils across Britain that are committed to a new idea of local government based on community empowerment and shared responsibility between communities, businesses, public service agencies and Councils for improving health, economic and educational prospects in their towns and cities.

Whether it’s on economic or social policy it’s increasingly apparent that cities can achieve much more by determining their own future both on their own and in collaboration with others than they can with central government.  There’s an increasing consensus that the share of growth that capital is taking is not only socially unhealthy but is also economically self-defeating. A big part of the problem has been the decline of countervailing civic institutions such as trade unions.  Re-purposed civic leadership at a metro city level can help to fill this vacuum.  Armed with the authority that comes from a partnership with business and communities, metro cities could operate at the level of functional labour markets to shape skills policy and to set pay thresholds.  But they will need new powers and financial freedoms to play this role.

Ben Lucas is Chair of Public Services at the RSA. You can follow him on Twitter at @BenLucas_

This blog was originally published on the City Growth Commission website.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.